Theatre and dance, which are inseparable art forms in Indian culture, are present even in the earliest works of Indian literature. The Veda literature, or the four Vedas, which forms the basis of early Brahmanism and later Hinduism, mentions dance and open-air theatrical performance. Otherwise, the Vedas mainly include invocations and hymns to the gods, ritual formulas, and short stories.
The Vedic tradition evolved orally through the centuries and received its written form much later in the post-Vedic period. Towards the end of the Vedic period, various gods, which were originally rather simple personifications of aspects of nature, began to acquire complicated mythologies, which personalised them. These mythologies were further elaborated in the early centuries AD by the Purana literature, while at the same these mythical stories became the main theme for much of the Indian theatrical arts.
The classical language of Indian civilisation is Sanskrit. The four Vedas were written in Sanskrit, and later an enormous corpus of literary works of various kinds, including the so-called Sanskrit Dramas, which will be discussed later, were written in Sanskrit. Panini, the great grammarian of Sanskrit, mentions a short text on acting in the 5th century BC.
Sanskrit remained the language of the educated elite until the Indian Medieval Period. The way people informally spoke Sanskrit, however, changed through the centuries. Thus Sanskrit ceased to be a natural, spoken language, a process similar to the fate of Latin in Medieval Europe.
The opposite of standard Sanskrit is Prakrit, varieties of dialects, which evolved from Sanskrit. For example, one revolutionary aspect of the Buddha’s career as a teacher was that he preached in Prakrit, which was understood by ordinary people too. Prakrit became an important element in classical Sanskrit Drama, since the clown and many minor characters spoke vernacular Prakrit.
India now has dozens of languages, including English, which, alongside Hindi, is a kind of universal language throughout the country. Sanskrit, however, remains an important key to understanding India’s religions and philosophy, as well as classical literature and theatre.
Buddhist literature indicates that early Buddhism also created a rich theatrical tradition. For example, the Pali Suttas (c. 5th–2nd centuries BC) mention theatre groups and various kinds of performers. It was by no means forbidden to portray the Buddha himself on stage, as has been sometimes the case later.
The Buddhist theatrical tradition spread later via the caravan route network, or the “Northern Silk Road”, to East Asia, and influenced the development of early theatre in Central Asia, China, Korea and even Japan. Another wave of influence spread to the regions of the Himalayas, where a rich tradition of monastery dramas evolved.
The Indian cultural sphere was the source of important Buddhist literature, which has been employed by numerous theatrical traditions both in ancient India and present-day Southeast Asia. The Buddhist Jataka or Birth Stories are morally instructive stories that came about at different times, in which the main character is an animal, a human being or a superhuman being seeking to do good.
They were gathered into a collection of 547 (or 550) stories in the Pali language, the sacred language of Buddhism. The main characters were described as early incarnations of the Buddha. The Jatakas give much valuable information about various theatrical practices from the period they were written, i.e. c. 600–200 BC.
The great Hindu epics of India, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, are of enormous importance for the whole culture, not only of India but also of other parts of Asia, particularly in Southeast Asia. They were originally conveyed orally, but they received their written forms in the early centuries AD. Since that time numerous variations have been written in India and other parts of Asia and, for example, the Ramayana has been set in Thailand, Burma, Laos and Cambodia in a Buddhist context, while in Malaysia it is set in an Islamic context.
The epics are of crucial importance to the theatrical arts, in two ways. Firstly, they give different kinds of information about theatrical practices from the periods in which they were formulated. Secondly, they provide plots for hundreds of different kinds of theatrical traditions, from simple storytelling to shadow theatre, classical Sanskrit dramas, various forms of dance-dramas, pilgrimage plays, and hundreds of folk traditions.
The Mahabharata (Synopsis of the Mahabharata) could be regarded as the national epic of India. It is the world’s largest epic poem, consisting of some 100,000 double verses. Like other great epics, the Mahabharata, written in Sanskrit, is a collective work, and its author is unknown. It has been generally assumed that the poem relates events that happened during a period of tribal warfare in Northern India in approximately the ninth century BC. The epic contains elements of the ancient, holy Veda texts, but its final form evolved over the centuries as it was sung by local “bards” or “troubadours”, who added new details and emphases to it.
The ethic norms of the priestly Brahman class were added to the story, and the Mahabharata gradually became a cornerstone of Hindu thinking. In its richness and diversity of levels, the Mahabharata is not only an ageless description of ancient clan disputes and bloody warfare, but also an image of an ultimately Indian way of conceiving the world and man’s duty in it. The Mahabharata is an immense work with numerous subplots, and hundreds of characters and episodes, from which independent literary works have arisen.
The Ramayana, which is probably the world’s most popular epic, tells of the struggle of Prince Rama with the demon-king Ravana. Like Krishna in the Mahabharata, Prince Rama is presented as the avatar or incarnation of the god Vishnu (synopsis of the Ramayana). The Ramayana may have originally been composed collectively, but the legendary author Valmiki is mentioned in connection with it. The epic is less extensive than the Mahabharata, consisting of 12,000 double verses.
Indian literary heritage includes several shastras or manuals (also code, theory, treatise) covering a vast range of subjects from cooking, elephant and horse breeding, and lovemaking, as well as several art forms, such as poetics, music, theatre, and dance. The earliest treatise for theatre and dance is the Natyashastra or the Drama Manual, which will be discussed in detail later.
Other shastra manuals also give information about theatrical practices, each according to their own specific viewpoint. The Kamashastra (Kamasutra), the treatise on love, informs us about the kind of role that theatrical performances had in the life of the upper class educated male citizen.
The Arthashastra, the treatise on politics and administration, on the other hand, gives detailed information about the role of different kinds of performers in the ideal, yet highly hierarchical, society described in this manual written in the 4th century BC.
The information scattered in the early literature discussed above offers an enlightening and multifaceted panorama of the theatrical forms and practices of early India. There were, for example, various kinds of places where performances took place, from simple open arenas to large cave theatres, and brick-built amphitheatres, as well as several kinds of wooden theatre buildings.
The early genres of performance included, among others, different kinds of rituals, and storytelling, as well as “picture showmen”, who employed either picture scrolls or panels to visualise their narration. Pure dances were popular, as were mimetic solo performances by a singe actor-dancer. The more literary forms of drama could involve a large cast of both male and female actors, while all-male and all-female troupes are also known to have existed.
In the early centuries AD the theory and the various practices of this rich and already mature theatrical tradition were formulated in the form of a shastra treatise, the Natyashastra or the Drama Manual.